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“I fled Europe as one flees one’s parents’ house“

Reiner Schürmann

How I Try to Sell Myself to the Americans

in: Origins, p. 211 – 242

I fled Europe as one flees one’s parents’ house: with an insincere effort to laugh at the barbecue set, the patio and the two-car garage.

On the airplane I had a dream. I came back from the dead. I found myself in a public lobby with marble all around. I had to show my identification card at a certain desk. A man beside me grasped my hand. He spoke very fast. He wanted to convince me to give a false address, a false date of birth, a false nationality. He insisted. His face dripped with sweat. His clothes stuck to his skin. He begged me not to reveal the country of my origin, nor that I had come back from the dead. He talked and talked. But I burst out laughing. I leaned on the marble counter and signed my name. With all the required information. The fellow backed off, as if horrified. Many other people turned away. His voice grew louder as it withdrew into the distance, vanished in empty space: “We need a professor of German philosophy. But not a German.”

I recognize that lobby. The Washington Hilton. Men in business suits are crammed in there by the thousands. American philosophers meeting for a convention. A compact assembly of thinkers. Thirty-five hundred of them, Newsweek published the figure. The eastern division of the American Philosophical Association. I make a tour of the counters. There are those of the airlines, TWA, Delta, Allegheny, and those of the hotel, reservations, information, mail, cashier. A perfume shop. 
A shoe-shine place. An art gallery with pictures painted on ­vel­vet. Crowds everywhere. Thinking crowds. All profs. Looking like insurance agents, more readily imagined talking finances than dialectic. Above a bank branch is written: Christmas, Think of it as Money. A prayer for peace follows, signed Riggs National Bank. Between Christmas and New Year’s is the time for the big conventions. I stop in front of every desk as if to bring to life the scene from the dream. To palm off the terror on someone else, as if it were a counterfeit note.

Is it here that death will cease? That a new life will begin? A gypsy once told me: “There, on the other side of the ocean, your running will come to an end.” I will cling to this continent as, years ago, I clung to the last train leaving the burning city of Krefeld....

  • past
  • post-war generation
  • memory
  • migration
  • 1968
  • identity
  • autobiography
  • post-war period
  • primal scene
  • National Socialism
  • trauma
  • childhood
  • homosexuality
  • youth
  • emigration

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Reiner Schürmann

Reiner Schürmann

(1941–93) was a German philosopher. He was born in Amsterdam and lived in Germany, Israel, and France before immigrating to the United States in the 1970s, where he was professor and director of the Department of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. He is the author of three books on philosophy: Heidegger on Being and Acting, Wandering Joy, and Broken Hegemonies. Origins is his only work of fiction. He never wrote nor published in his native German.
Other texts by Reiner Schürmann for DIAPHANES
Reiner Schürmann: Origins

Reiner Schürmann


Translated by Elizabeth Preston

Softcover, 272 pages


“Born too late to see the war and too early to forget it.” So writes Reiner Schürmann in Origins, a startlingly personal account of life as a young man from postwar Germany in the 1960s. Schürmann’s semi-autobiographical protagonist is incapable of escaping a past he never consciously experienced. All around him are barely concealed reminders of Nazi-inflicted death and destruction. His own experiences of displacement and rootlessness, too, are the burden of a cruel collective past. His story presents itself as a continuous quest for—and struggle to free himself from—his origins. The hero is haunted relentlessly by his fractured identity—in his childhood at his father’s factory, where he learns of the Nazi past through a horrible discovery; in an Israeli kibbutz, where, after a few months of happiness, he is thrown out for being a German; in postwar Freiburg, where he reencounters a friend who escaped the Nazi concentration camps; and finally, in the United States, where his attempts at a fresh start almost fail to exorcise the ghosts of the past.

Originally published in French in 1976, Origins was the winner of the coveted Prix Broquette-Gonin of the Académie Francaise. In close collaboration with the author, this translation was created in the early 1990s, but Schürmann’s premature death in 1993 prevented its publication process and, as a result, one of the most important literary accounts of the conflicted process of coming to terms with the Holocaust and Germany’s Nazi past has been unavailable to English readers until now. Candid and frank, filled with fury and caustic sarcasm, Origins offers insight into a generation caught between disappointment and rage, alignment and rebellion, guilt and obsession with the past.